In the early days of my work in the domestic violence field, I was baffled when the Power and Control Wheel was juxtaposed next to the Equality Wheel. How, I wondered, were we to get from one to the other? Should we focus on batterer intervention programs? Should we teach men to change their behavior? Yes, but what else?
This restless question was answered in part by seeing the extraordinary range of activism and organizing in marginalized communities to address domestic violence. And, what proved equally illuminating, was understanding the analyses, agendas, and strategies of movements - especially the civil rights and women's movements - and how they intentionally grew a politics of solidarity with other activists and causes.
Now, when we analyze domestic violence we go beyond identifying the quartet of physical, sexual, emotional and economic abuses; and especially in the wake of backlash claims about gender symmetry, we examine the trio of context, intention, and injury/harm. This, in fact, is exactly what movements have done. In minoritized communities, oppression was the historical context, it was the currency. The intention of the majority was to disenfranchise, preserve the patriarchal core of class, gender and race privilege. Injuries were inflicted with impunity - from letting dogs lose on black people to killing them; from withholding voting rights and not permitting inheritance transfers for women to prescribing the thickness of the stick they could be beaten with - the 'rule of thumb.'
As our work expanded from domestic violence to address other forms of gender-based violence, such as trafficking or reproductive coercion or corrective rape, we have needed to re-calibrate our analysis. Just like the GPS that monotones in slight desperation, "recalculating, recalculating." And indeed, sometimes it feels like our analysis of gender-based violence is constantly being recalculated as new types of violence against women appear or as old ones acquire new levels of misogyny. Notice how high the volume has been turned up by patriarchy on just access to reproductive health, let alone to reproductive rights.
Examining gender-based violence therefore means taking into account contexts, intentions, and resulting injuries and harms: who did what to whom, for what purpose, and with what results. And violence is more than discrete incidents of physical abuse; but long-standing oppressive practices smuggled in as cultural traditions, the exercise of coercive control, sexual violence by familial and state actors, and the various types of abuses on the Lifetime Spiral of Gender Violence.
The presence of gender violence tells us about the presence of inequality; the extent of the violence tells us about the extent of the inequality.
The Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence developed the Lifetime Spiral of Gender Violence to illustrate that gender-based violence is universal and historical. It is not an unfortunate incident; not women's bad judgment, bad luck, or provocation; not about being in the wrong place at the wrong time; not a matter of abusers or rapists who inexplicably 'snap'. Violence against women occurs in the contexts of additional oppressions based on class, race, age, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity, and/or immigration and refugee status.
In the Lifetime Spiral of Gender Violence:
Thus, the spaces of growth, learning, love, desire, become dangerous.
We cannot however rest at analyzing gender-based violence because sexism and misogyny are foundational to inequality, and far more pervasive. Violence is the most extreme expression of gender oppression, but cultures of patriarchy also rely on sexism. Patriarchy is about the social relations of power between men and women, women and women, and men and men. It is a system for maintaining class, race and/or gender privilege and the status quo of power. It is also used to patrol and enforce culturally prescribed gender roles.
As agents of change, analyzing sexism over the lifecourse allows us to confront its practices in our communities. Let me give two examples. Maintaining the tradition of men and boys eating first and getting served the best food, repeatedly confirms female devaluation and male entitlement. (Men do not even have to be concerned if female family members ate well or ate enough.)
What is the evidence of patriarchy and sexism here? First, patriarchy reinforces community norms that children belong to their father. Second, sexism gives permission to conclude that the mother must be unfit and the father is nobly stepping in. Third, standards for good fathering are set extremely low and standards for good mothering, very high - smoothing the way for fathers. Lastly, all too often in custody disputes the implicit assumption is that battering men still make good dads, but battered women do not make good mothers.
Equality for women is a work in progress everywhere, even in the global north.
The term gender democracy evokes the many dynamic paths to gender equality and equity that civil society, cultures and individuals take. I first heard the term used by our Central Asian sisters in Tajikistan - they found it resonated better at the community level than the term gender equality. Gender democracy conveys strength, freshness, liberation.
Equality is critical to liberation, but equality is not a matter of catching up, or narrowing the gap towards an ideal. It is in fact a radical demand marked by fundamental shifts in the access to, and distribution of wealth, resources, and power. Is gender equality a radical or a fundamental demand?
From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy: What Will it Take? This question captures the urgency of articulating what works and why. Whilst the anti-domestic violence movement has successfully built resources and recourses for battered women, we have not stopped men's violence against women. What will it take to do that? Whilst we have developed post-violence responses, we need strategies for pre-violence societal change. What will it take to make gender democracy, not gender violence, normative?
Finally, gender democracy will mean replacing relationships of power with relationships of meaning.
Persons depicted are models and are used for illustrative purposes only.
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